Here comes the judge — off the bench and off the wall


Expanded from the 11-4-2001 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

OFF THE BENCH. Last week, a pair of political warhorses announced their retirements and launched Nevada's legal establishment into lust. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Procter R. Hug, Jr., will move to senior (semi-retired) status, opening up what has traditionally been one of Nevada's seats in the largest jurisdiction of the nation's federal appellate courts. The geographically huge district goes from the Mountain West to Hawaii and Guam.

Just in case you think the process of federal judicial selection is something dignified and pristine, let me burst your bubble. Politics ain't bean bag and there are no virgins in this cathouse.

The story of Hug's appointment during the Carter administration illustrates the point. During the 1976 presidential campaign, candidate Jimmy Carter promised to clean up the juice-laden process of judicial appointments. Sounded good.

Unfortunately, he got elected and had to keep his promise. Traditionally, a state's senior senator from the party holding the White House gets to call the shot. In the case of Hug's seat, that means freshman Republican John Ensign.

Senators jealously guard that prerogative. Sen. Jesse Helms, R- N. Carolina, ensured that his state got no federal court appointees for many years because no one was conservative enough to suit him. No president would appoint a guy wearing a hood and white sheets. So Helms ended up seeing senators from neighboring states getting their guys onto the bench.

President Carter should have just kept the good-ole-boy status quo. Instead, he came up with something called a judicial nominating commission for each circuit. When Nevadan Charles Merrill decided to retire, it set off heavyweight political jockeying.

From the old lion law firm of Woodburn and Wedge came Procter S. Hug, Jr., scion of an old Reno family in a law firm full of old Reno names to this day. Talk about prestige — Hug was the son of the man for whom Reno's Hug High School is named; he served as a University of Nevada Regent and was considered just an all around heckuva good guy.

From the young lion law firm of McDonald, Carano and Wilson came State Sen. Thomas R.C. "Spike" Wilson, rising political star and — in the opinion of everybody to this very day — an absolutely brilliant lawyer.

Woodburn and Wedge has occupied the top floor of downtown Reno's black fortress office building (now owned by the Cal-Neva) since the place was built in the Sixties. Bill Woodburn and Virgil Wedge were very heavy hitters in Nevada politics at mid-century.

On the other side of Virginia Street, Bob McDonald played a major role in getting Democrat Mike O'Callaghan elected governor in 1970. The firm got into casino development even before that. They acquired Bill and Effie's truck stop, hired future Lt. Gov. Bob Cashell to run it, and named it Boomtown.

Don Carano by 1970 was a principal in the downtown Reno Pioneer Inn and was busy acquiring land at N. Virginia and Fourth streets where stood the legendary Little Waldorf college saloon. It is now the Eldorado Hotel-Casino, perhaps the most profitable and successful gambling joint in this valley.

The clash of the titans for the Ninth Circuit seat was thus joined. Carter's commission was charged with screening those interested and submitting three names to the president. Hug and Wilson made the final cut, as did Nevada Supreme Court Justice John Mowbray. Mowbray's fellow justice Al Gunderson was stunned at being left out in the cold and thus a mighty battle began.

Wilson's chances were damaged when columnist Ned Day reported in the North Las Vegas Valley Times that lobbyist Jim Joyce (yesteryear's Harvey Whittemore) was working the commission on Wilson's behalf. Wilson denied any relationship with Joyce, but did have Joyce on board in 1973 when Wilson was looking at running for higher office.

The personality contest made the press, but the real battle was for bragging rights between big juice law firms. With Wilson's chances dwindling, the McDonald-Carano axis sought help from the third member of the Silver State's legal triumvirate, Lionel Sawyer and Collins. All of this made Sen. Wilson too hot for Carter to handle and Mr. Hug got the seat basically by being the least controversial of the three nominees.

Why were these law firms so eager to get one of their guys a choice appointment? It's not just bragging rights. When soliciting big bucks clients, juice law firms will often point to their partners in public office or ex-partners sojourning on the bench.

Look for a new clash of the same triumvirate of titans over who gets Hug's job.

OFF THE CLIFF. Conservative Nevada Supreme Court Justice Cliff Young has announced he will not seek another term next year. Gunderson played a major role in electing Young over incumbent Noel Manoukian in 1984.

Manoukian made the news last week as a lawyer representing Depressurized Technologies International, the uninsured outfit which saw its Douglas County plant explode on Sept. 17. Manoukian blamed the Latino workers for blowing up, burning and killing themselves. What a guy.

OFF THE FENCE. State Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Sparks/Reno, has apparently changed her mind and will not retire after her current term. She's actively soliciting support for re-election next year.

OFF THE WALL. Assemblywoman Dawn Gibbons, R-Reno, has decided to retire rather than face fellow Republican David Humke in a divisive primary. She's aiming higher. One scenario holds that she will seek the senate seat now held by majority leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, whether or not he seeks a new term in 2004. Another says that if her husband, Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., decides to run against U.S. Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., Mrs. Gibbons will seek to replace her husband in the lower house three years from now.

OFF THE STREET. A rumor buzzing N. Virginia Street concerns Harrah's buying the beleaguered Fitzgerald's Hotel-Casino. In the Oct. 21 Barbwire, I reported that employees of Fitzgerald's have been told they'll be informed of their fates on Nov. 16. The company is due in federal bankruptcy court a couple of days later. Some wise guys say one or more buyers may make offers in that court proceeding. Older stories have had Fitzgerald's in the process of conversion to timeshares like the now-dark Flamingo Hilton-Reno.

Stay of good heart.

Be well. Raise hell.

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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 32-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of NevadaLabor.com and JoeNeal.org/ Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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